April 28, 2009: Arlen Specter Switches Parties

On this day in 2009, the late Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Arlen Specter announced that he was switching his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat. The switch gave specterSpecter a better chance of winning his 2010 election.

In the statement that he issued following the switch, Specter said:

“Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans.”

Indeed. It was more surprising that the switch did not happen sooner. For years, Specter was considered to be the biggest “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) in the Senate. So much so that in 2003, at the near-height of Republican Congressional rule, the National Review released a cover story calling Specter “the worst Republican Senator”.

It was a shame that the Republican party went to great lengths to alienate its moderate members in the 2000s and that Specter felt that he had to switch to win in 2010.  However, Specter faced what was, at best, a difficult primary challenge from former Rep. Pat Toomey. If Specter had lost, the thinking was that the seat would have gone to a Democrat. Considering how other alleged RINOs like Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee (now an independent and Governor) and former Ohio Senator Mike DeWine fared in their 2008 elections, most pundits thought Specter’s switch only accelerated the Republican loss of this seat by 20 months.

But that’s not what happened.

In a political year whose slogan was “Burn the village” Specter received the endorsement of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, but lost his primary to Democratic U.S. Representative Joe Sestak, who then lost the general election to Toomey. The year showed an unprecedented level of backlash for incumbents and RINOs. All in all, 54 House incumbents lost their seats. In the Senate, Republicans gained six seats, but would have gained more had states like Delaware not disregarded its moderate statesmen like Michael Castle for Christine O’Donnell.

Specter’s switch really cannot be viewed as a mistake. Had he not done so, Specter likely would have lost the Republican primary as well. Regardless of your view on the 2009 switch, it remains a strong example of how quickly the political landscape can change.

Specter finished his term in 2010 and retired from politics. Sadly, he passed away from complications from non-Hodgkins lymphoma in October of 2012.

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